Ariya Jutanugarn’s strength isn’t measured in the mammoth distances she can pound a golf ball.
It’s measured in how far she has come since falling flat on her face.
It’s in the might it took overcoming the kind of failure that made insiders doubt she was ever going to realize the promise she showed as a teen wunderkind.
You only have to turn the clock back a year to see the majestic arc of her climb.
Jutanugarn missed the cut at the Pure Silk Bahamas Classic in last year’s LPGA’s season opener. She left Paradise Island with her head swimming in uncertainty because she was coming to know the sting of missed cuts too well. She missed 10 in a row the season before.
Jutanugarn left the Bahamas last year No. 63 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings.
But she wouldn’t miss another cut the rest of the year.
She would rebound to win five times, including her first major championship.
She would win the LPGA’s Rolex Player of the Year Award and climb all the way to No. 2 in the world rankings.
Jutanugarn takes a deep breath and sighs when asked to compare how she feels going to the Bahamas for this week’s season opener compared to last year’s.
“I feel a lot more confident,” Jutanugarn told GolfChannel.com. “I’m not thinking about negative things, like last year. I was uncomfortable at this time last year, but I’m more relaxed now.”
Jutanugarn’s comeback stands as inspiration to every struggling player going through hard times.
“Ariya shows us all you can go through tough times in life, but you can come back,” said Gary Gilchrist, her swing coach. “She bounced back with her determination, with her self-belief.”
Jutanugarn credits the new team she put together early last year for helping her come back. She is relying on its members again to help her with a new set of challenges. She brought on Vision 54’s Pia Nilsson and Lynn Marriott as her mental coaches a few weeks after leaving the Bahamas last year and hired Gilchrist as her swing coach about the same time.
That team helped Jutanugarn rebuild her game after a shoulder injury and surgery in 2013 led to a massive slump and loss of confidence.
Nilsson and Marriott gave Jutanugarn a game-changing pre-shot routine to quiet her nerves, steady her rhythm and keep her from rushing under pressure. A practiced pre-shot smile worked wonders as a “trigger” reminding Jutanugarn how to focus.
As the highest ranked player in the field at the Bahamas this week, Jutanugarn is the favorite to win. And therein lies the new challenge this year.
Jutanugarn will tee it up Thursday with giant expectations in tow.
“I know what I have to do now, even when I’m not playing well,” Jutanugarn said of the tools her team has given her. “I’m learning from rounds even when I’m playing bad.”
There are Vision 54 tools in that answer.
“It’s a totally new situation for her this year,” Nilsson said. “But she wants to keep learning and growing.”
The key words there in the Vision 54 toolbox are “learning” and “growing.” They’re concepts in a perspective they’re passing along to Jutanugarn, to help her temper expectations.
Nilsson and Marriott are helping Jutanugarn use a “growth mindset” philosophy to deal with expectations. It’s an approach popularized by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck. It’s based on the idea that talent’s just the starting point to achievement, that love of learning leads to success.
While they aren’t specifically talking about Dweck and her concept, the ideas are in Vision 54’s approach.
“We don’t talk about the specific philosophy or the academic part of this to May,” Marriott said. “But we are trying to help her understand that [the challenges this year] are just about more learning and growing.”
There’s an attitude in the “growth mindset” philosophy that helps achievers play offense, instead of defense, which is a danger when players are trying to protect world-ranking turf or trying to duplicate success.
“When you’re trying to hold on to something, that makes you defensive,” Marriott said. “When you stay in a learning and `growth mindset,’ you’re on the offensive.”
Ariya and her sister, Moriya, spent almost a month in their native Thailand during the holidays. They vacationed on the beach at Krabi. They went boating, snorkeling and rock climbing.
“I only played golf three times in a month,” Ariya said.
Of course, there were a lot of media requests, and sponsor functions. Ariya’s success has led to more demands along with greater expectations.
After leaving Thailand, and before heading back to their new home in Lake Nona in Orlando, the sisters stopped to see Nilsson and Marriott in Scottsdale, Ariz., for a four-day camp to get ready for the new season.
Before heading to the Bahamas, the Jutanugarns met several times with Gilchrist at his base in Howey-In-The-Hills, just north of Orlando.
“We’re all working together, as a team,” said Moriya, the LPGA’s Rookie of the Year in 2013. “Pia, Lynn and Gary, they’re all talking and working together, and I think that’s really important. I think we all did pretty good together last year, and we’re trying to keep that up, and we’re trying to make things as simple as we can.”
Nilsson says Ariya has been open about the feelings she is having coming into the new year.
“Ariya says she’s feeling nervous about the expectations, but that’s the good thing,” Nilsson said. “She’s honest about it. That allows you to figure out what to do about it. She knows what she needs to focus on.”
Mostly, Ariya knows the strength she has to make the uphill climbs the game demands.